Q & A: Director Brian Hecker on “Bart Got A Room”

Director Brian Hecker

Director Brian Hecker

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to first time director Brian Hecker about the making of “Bart Got A Room”, a coming of age comedy set in Hollywood, Florida about nerdy high school senior Danny Stein’s desperate efforts to find a prom date after spending $600 for a limo, tuxedo and hotel room for the big night.

Hecker, a South Florida native, has already attracted well deserved attention for “Bart”, opening Apr. 3 via Anchor Bay Films in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Toronto, and now has a writing deal with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Productions and Paramount Pictures for a film about Nolan Bushnell, founder of the pioneer videogame company Atari.

“Bart” is a Plum Pictures presentation in association with Shrink Media and Basra Entertainment and Benedek Films and Hart-Lunsford Pictures. Written and directed by Hecker, it stars Steven Kaplan, Alia Shawkat, Brandon Hardesty and Jennifer Tilly with Cheryl Hines and William H. Macy.

Although “Bart” revolves around the character Danny and his need to find a prom date, the title refers to the school’s biggest dweeb and the fact that even he’s been able to get come up with a date for the prom and has reserved one of those much in demand hotel rooms for the occasion. The title should actually be pronounced “Bart??? Got A Room!”

Produced by Galt Niederhoffer, Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Celine Rattray and Jai Stefan and Tony Shawkat, its executive producers are Pamela Hirsch and Stephen Benedek, Mario Fallone, Ed Hart, Bruce Lunsford and Brenda Rhodes and Dina Burke, Michael Lafetra, Reagan Silber and Randy Simon.

Hecker, who has a Bachelor’s Degree from Northwestern University, got an MFA from the American Film Institute where his thesis film, “Family Attraction”, starring Chris Penn and Martin Sheen, earned him Director of the Year honors. The short played at over a dozen film festivals worldwide and is one of AFI’s biggest short film successes.

Q: How did you come to make “Bart Got A Room?”
A: It’s loosely based on my life as a pathetic loser growing up in the most un-hip environment a kid could possibly grow up in — Hollywood, Florida, where you’re surrounded by retirees and egrets and lizards and sticky wet humidity, big puffy clouds and golf carts. I was very inspired to capture that environment (and) what it’s like for a kid to grow up having a tremendous amount of anxiety (and) an identity crisis to try to figure out who he is and his place in the world.
Q: Did what happens to Danny in the movie actually happen to you?
A: I had delusions of grandeur of going to prom with a sexy sophomore and when my platonic friend asked me I said no. And when I went to the sophomore she said, “No way. I’m not interested in going to the prom.” I went back to my friend with my tail between my legs and she was now already taken. So that was sort of the starting point for the story.
Q: A case of art imitating life?
A: (Actually a case of) life imitates art imitating life because I shot the movie in South Florida and I had my kooky parents helping me in different aspects of production. My dad helped me (with) the location scouting process and driving around like a lunatic like the dad (Macy) does in the movie. My mom helped me to get a lot of the extras that we had in the movie so I kept her pretty busy. It was an interesting family affair.
Q: It’s unusual that you actually shot your movie where it takes place. These days everyone seems to be doubling other cities for the place where their movies are set.
A: There was some pressure to shoot it in Los Angeles, but I definitely fought to keep it in the locations that I knew and loved and where a lot of the story was (set). At some point, plot is driven by the environment, itself. (His reference is to Danny’s best friend Craig finding out that his girlfriend has gotten a bad case of sun blisters in the sizzling South Florida April sunshine and, therefore, can’t go to the prom with him. That prompts him to invite Danny’s platonic girlfriend, thinking she’d be available because Danny wasn’t going to take her. Of course, when Danny winds up coming back to the girl he’s devastated to discover she’s going with Craig!)

South Florida was really important to me, especially because of the retirement community and how that affected and inspired the (swing era big band) music that Danny played in his jazz bands. The wardrobe choices that we came up with (for Danny) reflect the environment (and) he definitely stands out from anything that’s hip or cool. When we ended up getting to shoot in South Florida I sort of made it a mandate for my cinematographer, location manager and production designer that every shot would some way be indigenous to that particular environment.
Q: How did you do that?
A: (By using) locations where every house was either on a canal or on a golf course. If we couldn’t do something on the water, we had seniors in the background walking by or pictures of palm trees. We found a restaurant that had a giant palm tree in the center of the restaurant and it was a Cuban restaurant because there are a lot of Cubans in South Florida. We decided that if we were going to indeed shoot it in South Florida, we should really take advantage of (being there) so any person watching it would know that this wasn’t another environment doubled up as South Florida.
Q: How did you get to direct your first feature?
A: (When I was studying at AFI) I had just completed a short called “Prom Pudendum,” which was an eight minute short. It got a lot of attention. Frank Pierson, who was teaching at the time, who wrote “Dog Day Afternoon,” took a real liking to it. It gave me the confidence to realize that this is something that I can do if I stick to stories that I know that are very personal. I don’t need to worry about writing stories that are going to change the world, but I could create things that will resonate with people because they can relate. I had a professor at the time who I asked if he could help me get a PA job and he said, “PA job? Let’s get you a writing-directing deal.” I was like, “Great!”

He took me around (the summer before my second year at AFI) and had me pitch a feature version of this short to a bunch of producing friends of his. I started pitching it and before you know it I ended up pitching it to all these executives and producers. Different producers wanted a piece of it and it just kept increasing in value. We ended up setting it up at Universal and the Bubble Factory. This is almost 10 years ago. Sid Sheinberg heard the pitch and he was, “I suppose you want to direct this, too, huh kid?” I was like, “Yes, yes.” I had music accompanying the pitch from a boom box and he was like, “You know, it’s very expensive to acquire the rights to that kind of music.” I was like, “Well, you know, this is just a sample to give you a sense of the tone and the flavor of the story.” He said, “Well, let me think about it,” and the next thing you know I got into the Writers Guild and he hired me to write the script of “Bart Got A Room” for Universal and the Bubble Factory.
Q: But like so many other good projects, it wound up being put into turnaround.
A: (And then) along came producer Cathy Konrad, who along with Miramax bought the project from Universal. This was in 1998. I got a three picture writing-directing deal with Harvey Weinstein (then co-chairman of Miramax), which didn’t amount to anything. They wanted me to merge “Bart Got A Room” with a project that they already had in development called “Prom War”, which was a totally different film in tone. It was more like a zany prom movie. So that was a recipe for disaster. Of course, I convinced them that I could do a good job merging these two, but it’s very difficult to merge two completely different scripts and have something that makes any sense.

They ended up putting the project in turnaround and then I found this production company in New York called Plum Pictures. The three women that run this company are really smart, really determined and really tenacious. They’ve made like nine feature films already. They’re Galt Niederhoffer, Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Celine Rattray. They believed in the project and Galt Niederhoffer sort of was the helmer. She asked me who were my top choices to play the father character and William H. Macy was one of them. We made an offer to him and he agreed.
Q: Tell me about meeting Bill Macy.
A: We met at the Roosevelt Hotel (in L.A.) and I remember I was so excited and so nervous to meet the great Bill Macy that I went to the bathroom first to check myself in the mirror. Bill Macy comes out of a stall while I’m doing that. It seemed like a girly thing to do to look at yourself in the mirror before you meet with someone so I didn’t want him to think I was doing that. So as he was coming out, I immediately went to one of the urinals and as I’m walking to the urinal he made eye contact with me. So I figured, okay, well I had to acknowledge him now because I’m going to be seeing him in three minutes. It’s going to be weird if I don’t say hello. So I’m walking to the urinal and I’m like, “Hey, Mr. Macy, it’s Brian Hecker.” And I proceed now to pretend to go to the urinal and I’m thinking he’s going to say, “Hey, I’ll see you in a couple of minutes.”

Instead, he stays at the door and I’m like pretend urinating. (And he says), “Loved your script. Really loved your script.” I said, “Well, thank you Mr. Macy. You know, I have to say, this is the first time I’ve ever started a meeting in the bathroom.” And he stands there and he goes, “Not the first for me.” He’s just such a generous guy and so cool. I spent at least three quarters of the first meeting asking him questions about David Mamet (who) has definitely been one of my biggest influences as a writer. I just got to see Macy on Broadway. He invited me to see him (in Mamet’s) “Speed the Plough.” That was such a thrill to go to Broadway, see him and get to hang out with him after.
Q: How did production go?
A: (We only had) 20 days, which is pretty insane. It’s good that I’m very anal retentive and pretty obsessively organized. It doesn’t help me in my relationship life, but it definitely helps me when it comes time to having to shoot something in 20 days. I remember fighting for my cinematographer (Hallvard Braein), who is Norwegian, who I met at the American Film Institute. He was a student with me. He’s one of these guys who’s so insanely passionate and will do whatever it takes and stay up all night and pull out his hair with me to plan our shots. The production company was like, “Brian, come on. You’re a first time feature filmmaker and we can get you all these big cinematographers.”

I’m like, “No, you don’t understand. We’ve got to get Hallvard Braein out of Norway and we’ve got to make him legal so he can work here in the United States. Please, I’m begging you. I’ve got to have my cinematographer from the American Film Institute.” I fought for it and we had to spend a lot of money on an immigration lawyer and we got him here. He’s a great, great DP and we have a great relationship so I was really happy that that worked out.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you had to deal with in production?
A: Well, in South Florida we were shooting during hurricane season and that was a big gamble. In Florida when you don’t have opportunities to shoot beyond your 20 days and you have no opportunities to do re-shoots, you’re so dependent on going with the flow and whatever happens. You know, Florida is notorious for having very quick weather changes. We had some brutal situations that took place. It started pouring on us at different times and we just had to improvise. So there’s a scene where Bill Macy is driving around in a car and it started raining on us so we just made it about a rainy scene. I remember being in the camera car and the crew was on there and it’s pouring down on us. It’s really, really cold. My headsets are not working because the frequency is getting screwed (up) because of the heavy rains. So I couldn’t even direct Macy in the car and I’m shouting to my cinematographer through the thunder showers that are happening so he can’t even hear me.
Q: Now you’ve got your first feature under your belt and you’re moving on to your next project.
A: It’s really exciting. My writing partner Craig Sherman and I — he’s a friend of mine from high school — spent about eight months trying to get the life rights to Nolan Bushnell, who in the ’70s began the videogame revolution. He was a young hippie, an amazing colorful man who at 32 started one of the fastest growing companies in American history. He started Atari with $500 and in less than 10 years it grew to a $2 billion company. It’s a really, really interesting story. We just kept delving into more articles and books and got to sit down with him ourselves. He ended up trusting us. He has a wonderful family and he’s a really, really nice guy. Once we got the life rights we went to Leonardo DiCaprio’s company, Appian Way, and his producing partner, Jennifer Killoran, really took a liking to us and we ended up writing this for Appian Way and Paramount Pictures.